James Baldwin was an American author, essayist, and playwright whose powerful writing, insightful commentary on race, and passionate civil rights activism made him one of the most influential social and cultural commentators in 20th-century America.

Baldwin rose to prominence with the publication of his 1953 debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which explores issues of queerness, sexuality, race, religion, and black culture in ways both groundbreaking and transgressive for its time. He went on to write five more novels, including Another Country (1962), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Giovanni’s Room (1956), which focuses on male homosexuality and bisexuality, masculinity, isolation, stigma, bigotry, and related themes. He also penned two plays, The Amen Corner (1955) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), as well as a half dozen short stories and a number of poetry collections.

Impressive though his fiction bibliography is, James Baldwin was most prolific as a nonfiction writer. Writing more than a hundred articles and a great many essay collections, including Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), and The Fire Next Time (1963), Baldwin was an intellectual fixture in mid-20th century America. He earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954, a George Polk Memorial Award in 1963, and Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur (France’s highest order of merit) in 1986.

His advocacy, participation, and public speaking regarding civil rights lent the movement an added weight and gravitas which helped build the momentum that led to landmark social progress. At times, however, Baldwin, one of only two prominent and openly LGBT figures in the civil rights movement (the other being Bayard Rustin), found himself in an uncomfortable place, as the movement’s attitudes toward homosexuality and bisexuality were often hostile. As with many activists of that era, the FBI monitored Badlwin closely, and compiled a nearly 2000-page file on him.

Baldwin also faced off opposite William F. Buckley, the 20th century’s foremost conservative intellectual, in a legendary public debate on race and civil rights that remains widely discussed to this day. Baldwin’s masterful speech drew a resounding standing ovation and remains praised to this day not only as an incredible feat of moral clarity, but of rhetorical oration.

As to his sexuality, Baldwin has widely been described as a gay man, however, he did not think of himself as “gay”, or “homosexual”, despite openly being a man who had romantic and sexual relationships with other men. The fact is, Baldwin had relationships with women early in his life, and in the years just prior to his death, he penned two essays — Here Be Dragons (1985) and To Crush the Serpent (1987) — in which he wrote about how love transcends sex and gender and that it is the individual one falls in love with, not their sex. He disliked sexual orientation labels, in part because of how they changed and shifted over time, but also because he felt they were limiting — a common attitude among those who are bisexual in all but name.